In order to examine one aspect of the religious significance of the establishment of a Jewish State in our generation, and of the festival marking this event – Yom Ha-atzmaut, I would like to assess it through the prism of Chanuka and Purim. These festivals were likewise established in response to historic events that occurred to the Jewish people, and understanding their inner nature will help us comprehend the meaning of Yom Ha-atzmaut.
Twice, Am Yisrael arose in its land as “the few against the many, the weak against the mighty,” and in both instances the Almighty granted us victory over our foes in the merit of the self-sacrifice and persistence of those fighting on behalf of the Jewish people. We have no need, therefore, to look any further to find a basis for a day of commemoration. “Ba-yamim ha-hem – ba-zman ha-zeh” – what happened then, also happened in recent times. Clearly, however, there is much more to the issue than that to which we have just alluded. We cannot properly assess the depth of the relationship between the two events before we examine our commemoration and observance on Chanuka and Purim.
Chazal established for us two festivals commemorating wonders and miracles God performed for our ancestors. At first glance, the reason for the establishment of these holidays is clear. Both in Achashverosh’s Shushan and during the time of the Greek Empire, the Jews faced a very real threat to their existence. Whether the threat was directed towards their physical existence – “to destroy, to kill and to eradicate young and old, children and women on a single day” – or if the threat involved spiritual persecution intended “to make them forget Your Torah and violate the statutes of Your will,” in both instances harsh decrees were issued against the Jews. The nation feared for its very existence, but the Almighty intervened and rescued them from harm. This is the straightforward reading of the verses towards the end of Megillat Esther (9:20-28) and the text of “al ha-nissim” added to our prayer service on Purim. As for Chanuka, already the Gemara (Shabbat 21b) presents the historical background to this holiday, and adds onto the story told in “al ha-nissim” the miracle of the single jug of oil.
Nevertheless, the meaning behind Chanuka and Purim requires further clarification. Many miracles occurred throughout Jewish history, as recorded in both the Scriptures and the oral tradition, but we never hear of these events warranting the establishment of festivals. Are we obliged to observe a holiday to commemorate the collapse of the walls of Jericho, or the descent of crystal stones from the heavens during the time of Yehoshua? Neither do we find any requirement to commemorate the miracles that occurred in the Temple.
The same applies to miraculous military triumphs. The question we asked concerning the miracle of the oil arises with regard to the miracle of the military victory, as well. Throughout history, in virtually every generation, there have been those who have arisen to destroy us, and the Almighty rescued us from their hands. Chanuka and Purim are far from the only instances when the Almighty fought on our behalf. Chazal already asked in Masekhet Pesachim (117a), “This hallel – who [initially] recited it?” They replied, “The prophets among them established that Israel should recite it over every incident and every crisis that might befall them – when they are redeemed, they recite it over their redemption.” Thus, the obligation to recite hallel applies whenever God rescues us; it is not limited to Chanuka and Purim. But as opposed to the obligation of hallel, the establishment of a special holiday to be observed for all time occurred only twice – Chanuka and Purim. The question thus arises, if so many miracles were performed for our forefathers and no festivals were instituted in response, and if we were rescued from danger so many times without establishing a festival in commemoration, what is unique about the miracles of Chanuka and Purim that warranted the establishment of these holidays? In fact, we know of several occasions recorded in Megillat Ta’anit when Benei Yisrael were saved from danger, and Chazal commemorated these events only by forbidding eulogies and fasts on these days. (See Ta’anit 17b-18b; Rosh Hashanah 18b-19b.) Thus, although we could easily understand the prohibitions against eulogies and fasting on Chanuka and Purim within the framework of Megillat Ta’anit, we must still search for an explanation for the eternally binding establishment of these festivals. Seemingly, the military victory and the miracle themselves do not warrant the establishment of a Yom Tov.
One might suggest that in terms of the nationwide scope of the danger and the sheer magnitude of the ultimate redemption, these two events have no equal. Still, it appears that the answer to our question lies elsewhere, in a factor other than the actual miracle and salvation. These festivals are days of “berit” (covenant); the essential nature of these days relates to the covenant established between Am Yisrael and the Almighty. Chazal (Shabbat 88a) comment that Benei Yisrael “accepted it [the Torah] once again during the time of Achashverosh”; likewise, we might say that “they accepted it once again during the time of Matityahu.”
To further develop this notion, we turn our attention to Pesach, the first of all the festivals. Here, too, the holiday does not serve to commemorate the miracles that occurred at the Sea of Reeds, but rather involves the designation of Am Yisrael and the covenant established between them and God. Let us examine the four “expressions of redemption” God uses when promising to release Benei Yisrael from bondage:
“Say, therefore, to the Israelite people: I am the Lord. I will free [ve-hotzeiti] you from the labors of the Egyptians and deliver [ve-hitzalti] you from their bondage. I will redeem [ve-ga’alti] you with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary chastisements. And I will take [ve-lakachti] you to be My people, and I will be your God. And you shall know that I, the Lord, am your God who freed you from the labors of the Egyptians.” (Shemot 6:6-7)
God informs Moshe not only of the release from bondage and the yoke of the Egyptian slavery (ve-hotzeiti, ve-hitzalti, ve-ga’alti), but also of Yisrael’s designation as the Almighty’s nation (ve-lakachti). These two promises involve two different, intrinsically unrelated concepts. Benei Yisrael could have become the chosen nation without achieving freedom, and, conversely, God could have freed them without designating them as His people. In assessing the nature of Pesach, we must determine which of these motifs forms the basis of the various mitzvot performed on this festival.
It would appear that the festival stems primarily from the nation’s entry into the covenant and their designation as God’s people – the realization of “ve-lakachti.” Benei Yisrael left Egypt on the morning of the 15th of Nissan, but their rescue was not complete until seven days later, when Pharaoh and his army drowned at sea. But Am Yisrael’s designation and entry into a covenant with God occurred on the night of the 15th. They placed upon their doorframes the covenantal blood of the paschal lamb and performed the other mitzvot associated with the korban pesach that night, even before their departure from Egypt. These mitzvot thus result not from the nation’s freedom from Egypt, but rather from the covenant. Herein lies the importance and centrality of the pesach offering, and this is what renders the obligation to recall the Exodus one of the fundamental aspects of Judaism. Am Yisrael’s designation, rather than their freedom, lends this event its singular importance.
The essential nature of the festivals involves the relationship establishebetween man and God, and the “amida lifnei Hashem” – our position as standing before the Almighty – which we assume on these days. The human being comes to the Temple on the festival and stands before God, and this closeness established between man and God lies at the heart of the Yamim Tovim. This concept finds expression not only in the manner in which the shalosh regalim (three pilgrimage festivals) are observed, but also in the specific days chosen as festivals. The festivals all result from the covenant between man and God, and in this theme their sanctity is rooted. The primary component is not the miracle or salvation, but rather the covenant latent within it. Therefore, Sukkot, which does not commemorate any rescue or salvation, but rather represents our closeness with God, is included among the festivals, and, conversely, other days when Benei Yisrael were saved from calamity did not become national holidays.
Let us briefly mention several halakhic factors that express this principle. Firstly, the regalim are inextricably bound with korbanot (sacrifices). The purpose of the three regalim is the offering of sacrifices and appearing before God in the Temple courtyard, and particular significance is afforded even to offering voluntary sacrifices on the regalim. This emerges clearly from the verses:
“These are the set times of the Lord that you shall celebrate as sacred occasions, bringing offerings by fire to the Lord – burnt offerings, meal offerings, sacrifices, and libations, on each day what is proper to it – apart from the Sabbaths of the Lord, and apart from your gifts and from all your votive offerings and from all your freewill offerings that you give to the Lord.” (Vayikra 23:37-8)
“All these you shall offer to the Lord at the stated times, in addition to your votive and freewill offerings, be they burnt offerings, meal offerings, libations, or offerings of well-being.” (Bamidbar 29:39)
The offering of korbanot gives expression to our standing before God required by the unique sanctity of the festival.
The status of the kohen gadol with respect to the laws of mourning also testifies to the connection between the sanctity of the regalim and the concept of “amida lifnei Hashem.” The straightforward reading of the Gemara in Masekhet Mo’ed Katan (14b) indicates that a kohen gadol does not observe the mourning laws upon the death of a relative because for him, every day has the status of a regel. Needless to say, the celebration observed by a kohen gadol every day throughout the year cannot possibly relate to the Exodus from the Egypt and Benei Yisrael’s rescue from crisis. Rather, the “regel” status of the kohen gadol stems from the fact that he constantly stands before God, and his daily existence thus resembles the rest of the nation’s experience during the regalim.
In light of all this, we may argue that the primary theme of Chanuka and Purim, too, relates not to the actual miracle or rescue from danger, but rather to the accompanying berit. What sets these two events apart from other instances of salvation is that they featured as well the establishment of a covenant between Am Yisrael and the Almighty. On these two occasions, there arose the need for a renewed covenant due to a challenge posed to the initial covenant of Sinai, which called into question its ongoing validity.
Both Chanuka and Purim mark historic turning points when Am Yisrael confronted new, unfamiliar circumstances which led them to question the significance of the covenant of Sinai. The Purim story is about the nation’s encounter with exile. In the wake of the Temple’s destruction and the Jews’ exile to Babylonia, a school of thought developed that viewed the initial covenant as null and void. This resulted primarily from the reality of exile itself and the sense among many that the exile reflected God’s annulment of the covenant. Quite possibly, many among the nation likely held the pagan belief that God’s domain was limited to the Land of Israel, and thus the covenant no longer applied once the Jews left.
Yechezkel fought against these beliefs already in the first generation of the exile, but the phenomenon spread and became further entrenched, to the point where, during the time of Achashverosh, the nation almost abrogated the covenant completely. A new generation arose in Shushan that never knew the Land of Israel. The people’s dislocation from its land now combined with the modern, cosmopolitan society of Shushan which warmly welcomed the Jews as equal citizens. A new theory now spread throughout the Jewish community, claiming that the Torah may have well suited their lives in the old country, in the traditional society led by kohanim and prophets, when they were surrounded on all sides by cruel, pagan nations. But in the modern, liberal, technologically advanced empire of Persia, the Torah lifestyle, which sets the Jews apart from the rest of society, has no place. The new reality, they claimed, warranted assimilation and acculturation, which necessarily entailed an abrogation of the Sinaitic covenant.
Mordekhai and Esther worked to reaffirm the covenant in opposition to these claims. The old man Mordekhai, a Jerusalemite driven to Babylon by Nevukhadnetzar, and Esther, a young girl born in Persia and fully integrated in Persian culture while remaining committed to Torah, joined forces to affirm the validity and relevance of the covenant in all places, at all times. Not only did a war against the Jews’ enemies erupt in Shushan, but a far more essential drama unfolded, as well: the reaffirmation of the covenant and its application to Jewish life in exile. The primary theme of Purim is the rejection of the process of assimilation and the renewed acceptance of the covenant of the Torah. “They accepted it once again during the time of Achashverosh.” Thus, we commemorate on Purim not only our miraculous salvation from Haman’s plan to destroy the Jews, but also the renewal of the covenant that occurred in the wake of the spiritual danger of total assimilation.
Whereas Purim marks the first encounter with exile, which resulted in the claim of the covenant’s irrelevance to the new reality, in the story of Chanuka the challenge evolved from the Jews’ first encounter with secular scholarship. The Jews’ exposure to the Greek-Hellenistic culture signified their first direct contact with a sophisticated, developed, cultural system created by human beings. Here, too, an entire movement arose that argued for the adoption of the Greeks’ cultural achievements at the expense of the Sinaitic covenant. As was the case in Shushan, the proponents of assimilation did not necessarily deny the Torah’s significance in previous generations. They rather questioned the need for its observance after the Jews’ exposure to general scholarship. We might describe their argument as follows: so long as Benei Yisrael were surrounded by pagan “barbarians” (as the Greeks called the pagans), the Torah helped them progress morally and culturally beyond the ancient peoples. It effectively achieved the goal it set for itself, to keep Benei Yisrael away from the abominable practices of the surrounding nations and have them live a more noble existence. But the Torah was necessary only when the single alternative was the Canaanite culture, before Am Yisrael was introduced to the sophisticated scholarship of the Greeks. Once, however, Greek philosophy and culture infiltrated into the Land of Israel, the Jews no longer have any need for the Torah and a relationship with the God of Israel. Matityahu and his sons, like Mordekhai and Esther in Persia, waved the banner of the renewal of the covenant and triggered a process of reaffirmation of the berit’s relevance to the new and changing circumstances that the Jews now confronted.
It turns out, then, that on Chanuka, too, we celebrate both the military triumph of the few over the many, as well as the renewal of the covenant in the time of Matityahu. We have thus answered our question of why we celebrate the miracle of Chanuka but do not observe a festival to commemorate many other miracles. The festival of Chanuka is a festival of the berit, rather than a festival of a miracle. On Chanuka we commemorate not the miracle per se, but rather the reaffirmation of the covenant that accompanied it.
To explain the function served by the miracle within the framework of the covenant, we must take note of the basic difference between the covenants established in the times of Mordekhai and Matityahu on the one hand, and the covenant of Sinai, on the other. The covenant of Sinai began, as did the Exodus, with the Almighty summoning Benei Yisrael to become His people. When Benei Yisrael encamp at the foot of Mount Sinai, God says to Moshe: “Now then, if you will obey Me faithfully and keep My covenant, you shall be My treasured possession among all the peoples. Indeed, all the earth is Mine, but you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Shemot 19:5-6). The Torah then tells, “Moshe came and summoned the elders of the people and put before them all that the Lord had commanded him. All the people answered as one, saying, ‘All that the Lord has spoken we will do.’ And Moshe brought back the people’s words to the Lord” (Shemot 19:7-8). God initiates this covenant by turning to Am Yisrael and inviting them to establish this berit. Chazal extend this notion even further with the famous image of God suspending the mountain over Benei Yisrael, as if forcing the covenant upon them (Shabbat 88a).
In Shushan and Modi’in, by contrast, the covenant was established out of the people’s initiative, rather than God’s. As it was the nation who initially sought to abrogate the berit, the renewal of the berit likewise had to come from them. Esther’s call, “Go and assemble!” and Matityahu’s cry of “Who is for the Lord – follow me!” and the nation’s positive response, constitute the renewal and reaffirmation of the covenant with God. The miracle in both cases served as a signal from above that the Almighty accepted their initiative and joined in a covenant with them. In other words, the miracle was the pipeline through which the Almighty conveyed His positive response to the nation’s invitation that He reestablish His covenant with them.
Until now, everything we said was based upon an analysis of sources, either from the Tanakh or Chazal, and we relied upon these sources in reaching our conclusions. This section, however, we approach with fear and trembling, as we attempt to understand the events of more recent times. We no longer have the Scriptural texts or Chazal’s authority on which to rely, but merely our scarce intellectual resources. We hope and pray that we will neither stumble nor err in our analysis, especially in light of the particular gravity of the topic at hand.
Over the course of over two millennia of exile and encounters with foreign peoples, these two covenants of Chanuka and Purim sufficed as the basis of our nation’s existence in the Diaspora. They allowed us to withstand every upheaval in every time and place, and thus no new festivals were established. One generation followed another, and we enjoyed the secure support of the covenants of Chanuka and Purim.
However, in the first half of the twentieth century, as a result of the historical and spiritual conditions that came into being, the covenant between Israel and our Father in heaven once again faced existential danger. The days of Shushan and Modi’in returned. The relevance of the previous covenants was put to the test, and the need arose once again to reaffirm the berit. As in the earlier instances, now, too, a process of the covenant’s renewal became necessary in response to the new forces that threatened to destroy it.
The first challenge to the covenant came from the secularist movement itself and the widespread abandonment of the Torah which came upon us like a tidal wave in the twentieth century. True, the encounter with a world of enlightenment and general culture is the theme of Chanuka, and thus no renewal of the covenant was necessary for this encounter itself, but this time, the results were far more extensive. As opposed to the time of the Chashmonaim, this period witnessed a process of abrogation of the covenant by an enormous percentage of the nation. Throughout the generations, our nation has never seen a situation of such widespread neglect of the covenant of Sinai. Without trying to determine the scope of Torah observance in earlier generations, suffice it to say that a situation where public debate and the basic axioms of Jewish society are entirely detached from Jewish tradition, as the Torah is perceived as the lot of a small minority of the nation, is unique to modern times.
The cries of the Jews who remained loyal to Torah fell upon deaf ears, and their efforts were largely to no avail. As secularization continued to intensify, the fear of the Jewish people’s complete abrogation of the Torah, as well as of the Almighty’s rejection of His nation, became ever more real. The Jewish people’s very connection to God, and its very identity as a nation, were in danger of being lost. Indeed, to our great sorrow, various ideologies emerged that encouraged striving towards this end.
And so, the Jewish people once again confronted a situation that endangered the berit and faced the dire need for the reaffirmation of its significance even in the modern era. The covenant was threatened not only by new technology, as in Persia, or by intellectual enlightenment, as in the times of Chashmonaim, but also by an unprecedented wave of secularization. And yet, in spite of it all, Am Yisrael did not lose its identity; the connection between the Jew and his Judaism did not disappear, and Am Yisrael did not entirely assimilate amidst the gentile nations. The covenant was reinstated through the Zionist movement. Of course, it was not the Sinaitic covenant that Zionism reaccepted; unfortunately, the Zionism of Herzl, Weizmann and Ben-Gurion did not return to the covenant of Sinai or make any attempt to revive it. Rather, Zionism brought back to life the covenant of the patriarchs.
The sanctity of Am Yisrael and its connection to God rests upon two pillars: the covenant of the patriarchs, and the covenant of Sinai. The first focuses on our national identity as Am Yisrael and is based upon God’s promise to Avraham:
“I will uphold My covenant between Me and you, and your offspring to come, as an everlasting covenant throughout the ages, to be God to you and to your offspring to come. I assign the land you sojourn in to you and your offspring to come, all the land of Canaan, as an everlasting holding, and I will be their God.” (Bereishit 17:7-8)
The second covenant relates to the acceptance of the Torah and was conveyed to our forefathers at Sinai, in the verses cited earlier:
“Now then, if you will obey Me faithfully and keep My covenant, you shall be My treasured possession among all the peoples. Indeed, all the earth is Mine, but you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” (Shemot 19:5-6)
Through our return to the land and newfound connection to our Jewish past, the covenant was reinstated.
Obviously, Zionism did not invent the notion of the berit avot (covenant of the patriarchs) or give birth to the concept of connecting with the Jewish past. Like the historic and religious efforts of Mordekhai and Matityahu, of Esther and Yehuda, who did not invent any new covenant but rather reaffirmed the old covenant under new circumstances, so may we credit Zionism with a similar achievement. Under new historical and spiritual conditions, it renewed the validity of a nation called Am Yisrael with a past, present and future, as a single national entity. It thereby reinstated the covenant of the patriarchs in the new realities of the modern era. And let us not underestimate this monumental accomplishment. A strong relationship exists between liberalism and rationalism on the one hand, and individualism on the other. The more liberal the approach, the more the element of national identity fades (if not disappears altogether). Communism similarly pointed to economic status as the sole means of ide, thereby eliminating the national component as it called to all workers in the world to unite at the expense of national identity. In a world in which all these “isms” operated simultaneously and won the enthusiastic approval of large segments of the Jewish people, the emphasis on the singularity of Am Yisrael as a nation – even within the framework of some of the aforementioned beliefs – indeed qualifies as a renewal of the covenant.
To this we must add a second component, as well: the land. “I will remember My covenant with Yaakov; I will remember also My covenant with Yitzchak, and also My covenant with Avraham; and I will remember the land” (Vayikra 26:42). In addressing the national element, the covenant of the patriarchs is inextricably bound to the land. The return to the land and its redemption from other peoples marked a most significant, historic shift from the previous millennia of exile. The Jews once again could live as a nation; the descendants of Avraham no longer need to live as isolated pockets, but rather as a nation dwelling in its homeland. If the relocation from Jerusalem to Shushan necessitated a renewal of the covenant due to the new reality, then the return to Jerusalem likewise requires reestablishing the covenant in light of the new reality, of the nation’s return from the Diaspora and the ingathering of the exiles.
True, the value of berit avot in the absence of Torah is hardly self-evident. After all, the covenant with Avraham is geared towards the establishment of a nation that observes the Torah and exemplifies its values, as the verse explicitly testifies, “For I have singled him out, that he may instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is just and right” (Bereishit 18:19). Thus, perhaps we cannot speak at all about this covenant’s renewal without “keeping the way of the Lord,” and we therefore cannot acknowledge any meaningful shift from the past in the abstract national identity championed by the Zionist movement. Indeed, many leading rabbis disregarded the Zionist enterprise entirely, on the assumption that we can afford no religious significance to a Jewish identity without the Torah.
However, religious Zionism and its thinkers came along and asserted the religious significance of the nationalist Jewish identity. Yeshayahu’s prophecy (44:5), “One shall say, ‘I am the Lord’s,’ another shall use the name of ‘Yaakov,'” was perceived as representative of two basic, independently valuable principles. The use of the names of “Yaakov” and “Yisrael” is of intrinsic significance, even if we do not speak of some underlying, unbeknown yearning for the covenant of Sinai on the part of the secular community, and even without acknowledging a deep, concealed desire for the world of Torah and mitzvot. Religious Zionism saw in the national identity itself a meaningful religious quality. The bond between the nation and its land is an outgrowth of the covenant with Avraham, and a confirmation and continuation of the covenant through his descendants who return to the their land. Specifically due to the abandonment of the covenant of Sinai, the covenant of the patriarchs took on now, more than ever, even greater meaning and importance.
The prophet Yirmiyahu writes in one of his most celebrated prophecies:
“Thus said the Lord: The people escaped from the sword found favor in the wilderness, when Israel was marching towards tranquillity… Again you shall plant vineyards on the hills of Samaria; men shall plant and live to enjoy them. For the day is coming when watchmen shall proclaim on the heights of Efrayim: Come, let us go up to Zion, to the Lord our God…
I will bring them in from the northland, gather them from the ends of the earth – the blind and the lame among them, those with child and those in labor – in a vast throng they shall return here. They shall come with weeping, and with compassion will I guide them. I will lead them to streams of water, by a level road where they will not stumble. For I am ever a Father to Israel, Efrayim is My firstborn.
Hear the word of the Lord, O nations, and tell it in the isles afar. Say: He who scattered Israel will gather them, and will guard them as a shepherd his flock. For the Lord will ransom Yaakov, redeem him from one too strong for him. They shall come and shout on the heights of Zion, radiant over the bounty of the Lord – over new grain and wine and oil, and over sheep and cattle. They shall fare like a watered garden, they shall never languish again. Then shall maidens dance gaily, young men and old alike. I will turn their mourning to joy, I will comfort them and cheer them in their grief. I will give the kohanim their fill of fatness, and My people shall enjoy My full bounty – declares the Lord…
Thus said the Lord: Restrain your voice from weeping, your eyes from shedding tears; for there is a reward for your labor – declares the Lord: they shall return from the enemy’s land. And there is hope for your future – declares the Lord: your children shall return to their country.” (Yirmiyahu 31:1-16)
Underlying these famous verses lies the basic assumption that there is religious significance and value to finding “tranquillity” for the “people escaped from the sword.” Bringing the survivors to their homeland amidst crying and compassion, leading them to streams of life-giving waters, as they enjoy the full bounty of God – all these are objectives proclaimed by the Almighty through His prophets. The message of comfort delivered by Yirmiyahu, the prophet of the destruction, is, first and foremost, “Yaakov shall again have calm and quiet with none to trouble him” (Yirmiyahu 30:10).
The very reality of a tranquil existence, accompanied by joy and consolation, constitutes a religious value, for two reasons. Firstly, granting respite and calm to an embittered, depressed soul, and relieving it of its troubles, involves concern for the suffering and misfortune of others – a form of “gemilut chasadim” that the Almighty performs for His creatures. Chazal already remarked that “the Torah begins with kindness and ends with kindness,” and they enumerate the expressions of God’s kindness and their significance (Sota 14a). Secondly, the concern for the sheep and cattle contains within it the message that the Almighty has not dissociated Himself from His people. They should never conclude in light of the calamities that befall them that He has forsaken them and rejected them. The prophet describes here not merely mercy and compassion one feels towards strangers, but rather a parent’s affection for his child: “For I am ever a Father to Israel, Efrayim is My firstborn.”
We learn from Yirmiyahu’s prophecy that had the State of Israel come into being only to provide “tranquillity” for the Holocaust survivors – this reason alone would have sufficed. Had they merely come to the land and seen the fulfillment of the promise, “I will turn their mourning to joy, I will comfort them and cheer them from their grief,” this itself would have justified the State’s existence from a religious perspective and rendered its establishment a meaningful event and the fulfillment of Yirmiyahu’s prophecy. Just as Chazal linked this prophecy to the story of the akeida by designating it as the haftara for the second day of Rosh Ha-shana, so may we draw an association between these words of consolation and the many “akeidot” our generation has experienced.
But this does not explain the full religious significance of the establishment of the State with respect to the years of horror and destruction that preceded it. The connection between the Holocaust and the establishment of the Jewish State is much deeper than simply the granting of tranquillity to those escaped from the sword. It touches upon the unshakable bond between the Holocaust and the renewal of the covenant in our time. We have here not merely a respite for the survivors, but the renewal of the covenant. In the last section, we pointed to secularization as the first factor that threatened the covenant in the modern era. The second factor that gave riseto the most difficult questions regarding the continued validity of the covenant was the Holocaust. We refer not to the theological problem of evil, but rather to the existential sense of our total abandonment by God that resulted from our false hopes for salvation and unanswered pleas for mercy. The feeling of helplessness in the face of the arrogant, ruthless tyrant yielded a sense of complete detachment between the Almighty and His world. The silence of the King of kings as the enemy slaughtered His people brought about serious doubts concerning His relationship to the world and to His nation.
It hardly would have surprised us had the survivors scattered throughout the earth and distanced themselves as much as possible from places where Jews face danger. Considering the ordeal they had endured, we would have accepted this decision sympathetically. Had they washed away or escaped their Jewish identity rather than fight for it, we would have most certainly viewed this as a natural response to the unspeakable suffering they had experienced. Their mere return to normal life and building families would have represented to us the failure of the plot devised by our foes, and the survivors’ triumph over the oppressors. The understandable desire to live peaceful lives and enjoy a “normal” existence after the years of horror could have very likely scattered the Jewish people throughout the world among the gentiles.
We might have expected the feeling of abandonment and neglect by God, combined with the desire for tranquillity and normalcy, to cause the Jewish people to distance themselves from Jewish identity. Such a response would have endangered the covenant. If the covenant with the patriarchs formed the single thread connecting Am Yisrael to God in the wake of the wave of secularization that overcame the nation, then the loss of this covenant, of Jewish identity, would have meant our complete detachment from the Almighty, Heaven forbid.
But this is not what happened. Rather than scatter about throughout the four corners of the earth, to remote islands whose inhabitants had never heard of the Jewish people, many survivors headed specifically towards the Land of the Patriarchs. Unfortunately, these survivors were not greeted by the joy of grain, wine and oil, but rather by a bloody war. Among the fallen heroes of Kefar Etzion were survivors of the ghettos; the battalion that fought at Latrun included former concentration camp inmates. Through this remarkable display of self-sacrifice, they reaffirmed the relevance of the covenant and their connection to Am Yisrael and its heritage, in spite of all they had been through.
This self-sacrifice of the Holocaust survivors combined with the selfless devotion of the population in Eretz Yisael who fought for the land and thereby reinstated the covenant whose validity had been challenged by secularization and persecution. Just as the Jews of Shushan and Modi’in renewed their commitment to the berit, so did a similar renewal occur throughout the Land of Israel when the Jewish State was declared. Its significance, then, and the significance of Yom Ha-atzmaut which commemorates this event, extends beyond the specific achievement of establishing a national entity in the land of our fathers, or a national home for the Jewish people. Its significance stems from the reinstating of the covenant of the patriarchs in the modern world. We might add that even in the Diaspora, the establishment of the State of Israel brought about a revival of Jewish identity or, in other words, a revival of the berit avot.
This renewal of the covenant, more than anything else, lends meaning and significance to Yom Ha-atzmaut and turns it into an exalted day of celebration. It is neither the actual establishment of the national entity, nor the claims of “the heels of the Messiah,” but rather the renewal of the covenant on the part of the generation of Israel’s independence that lies at the heart of this festival.
But our discussion cannot end here. First, we must address the famous distinction drawn by my teacher and grandfather, Rav Soloveitchik zt”l, between two aspects of the covenant: “berit goral” (covenant of fate) and “berit yi’ud” (covenant of destiny). The former refers to a historical reality forced upon the individual, whereas the latter describes the person’s conscious decision to accept this reality and lend it meaning. Undoubtedly, many among the generation of 5708 (1948) perceived these events as a result of the berit goral. But it is equally certain that many, many others looked upon this historical reality as their “yi’ud” – their willingly chosen destiny. The primary means of expression to this effect was the people’s preparedness to sacrifice their lives. It is perhaps this self-sacrifice that establishes the founding of the State as a conscious acceptance of the berit avot, in whose merit we were deserving of national revival.
Secondly, despite the equation we have drawn throughout our discussion between Chanuka and Purim on the one hand, and Yom Ha-atzmaut on the other, one critical and painful distinction exists, namely, the connection to the covenant of the Torah. We can speak all we want in praise of the covenant of the patriarchs, but we may never overlook the absence of the most basic point of connection between the Almighty and His creatures. There is a clear difference between Shushan and Modi’in, when a rabbinic scholar from the Sanhedrin or a kohen gadol leads the nation to a renewed acceptance of the Torah, and the modern State of Israel, where the secular, political leadership, however infused with Jewish identity, has no ambition of affirming the covenant of Sinai, but rather chooses to ignore it. The second half of the renewed covenant still awaits us, the moment when we will have the privilege of declaring in unison, as one person with a single heart, “Your nation is my nation, and your God is my God!”
(This is an abridged translation of a Hebrew article appearing in the Sefer Ha-Yovel of Sinai, and available on our website here.)
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This article was reposted with permission from the VBM—The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash of Yeshivat Har Etzion. Additional articles by Harav Mosheh Lichtenstein can be found here.